Christian Base Communities
Christian Base Communities
Christian Base Communities (Comunidades Eclesiales de Base—CEB) are small groups within a parish who meet regularly for Bible study, led by a priest, nun, or lay member; who elect their own leaders; and who decide democratically with what other activities the community should be concerned. At their inception, CEBs were seen as a mechanism by which the liberal Catholic doctrine developed during the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and the Bishops' Conference held at Medellín, Colombia (1968), could be implemented. The goal was to bring the laity into the life of the church, to bring the church into dialogue with the world, and to teach that the church is a community of equals before God in which everyone has obligations to each other and responsibilities to share. CEBs reflect a rupture with the past, when the church was allied with wealth and power, and demonstrate a new commitment to a "preferential option for the poor." It is not surprising, therefore, that CEBs have flourished in poor parishes across Latin America but are virtually unknown in middle- and upper-class parishes.
Lay leaders are known as catechists and delegates of the Word. They are chosen by the community for their leadership qualities, moral rectitude, Christian commitment, and willingness to serve. Catechists prepare parishioners for baptism, first communion, and marriage. Delegates lead the community in worship services; in many countries they are also authorized to give communion, to perform marriages, and to conduct burial services. Both catechists and delegates receive training from clergy and nuns and/or attend short courses at lay training centers.
The content of Bible study courses rejects the church's traditional message, preached from the Con-quest onward, that one should accept one's lot on earth and wait patiently for one's reward in heaven. Through the CEBs (in line with Medellín documents), the people receive a different message: that God, who is a God of justice, has acted throughout human history on behalf of the poor and oppressed; that it is not God's will that they be poor; that, before God, they are equal to the rich; that they have a basic human right to organize and take control of their own lives; and that the church has responsibility to "accompany" them in that journey.
The impact of this process is profound. More than one peasant has commented that when the priest or nun came to organize CEBs, it was the first time anyone had asked what she or he thought about anything. Nuns report observing their parishioners' traditional fatalism change over a few months to a new sociopolitical awareness: "It's 'God's will' when a child dies becomes 'The system caused this.'" Religious workers also report that CEB members change physically: "They walk upright, their heads high, with self-confidence," rather than shuffling along with heads bowed.
CEBs can continue for years and develop in different ways. All, however, share four characteristics. First, the CEBs provide an organization, a means by which the people can meet together on a regular basis. Since the poor have been unorganized in most societies, this is usually the first experience of its kind for CEB members. Furthermore, the form and function of each CEB are determined by the members of the community, not by the priest or nun, whose role is that of facilitator, resource, and occasionally advocate. It is the people who decide what they want and who organize themselves to get it, whether "it" be literacy classes, an agricultural cooperative, or paramedical training for a member of the community.
Second, the CEBs produce grass-roots leadership by selecting their own catechists and delegates. Among people who have been treated as objects for almost five centuries, the opportunity to develop local leadership has meant that for the first time since the Conquest, the poor have their own spokespeople who are willing and able to advocate on behalf of their communities.
Third, CEBs are working models of participatory democracy. The lay leaders never have the right to impose their will on the community; if they try to do so, they will be removed by the people. The same applies to priests. Traditionally it is unheard of for parishioners, especially peasants, to talk back to a priest. But two CEBs stopped a priest cold in one Central American country when he tried to discredit the nun who had been working with them for years, accusing her of "political work." The people told him he was wrong and refused to entertain the priest's charges.
Fourth, together with the Mass, CEBs provide the means by which the people reflect on God's word in the Bible, which contributes to concientización (or consentização, a word coined by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire), the process by which the people become aware (conscious) of the interconnectedness of God's Word, their lives, and their world.
The growth of CEBs has been explosive in some countries and virtually nonexistent in others. In still other countries there are great variations among dioceses. The data suggest two critical variables. First, there appears to be a correlation between the extent of poverty in a country and the number of CEBs. CEBs are few and far between in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica, countries that have enjoyed a relatively higher standard of living than the rest of Latin America. Second, there is a clear and even stronger correlation between the support a bishop gives the development of CEBs in his diocese and the number of CEBs that are organized. Brazil, with well over a hundred thousand CEBs, best illustrates both variables: widespread poverty and the most progressive bishops of any national church in the world. At the other end of the theological spectrum, Colombia, with equally widespread poverty and one of the most conservative hierarchies in Latin America, has relatively few CEBs. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico also qualify on both points, but the development of CEBs in each of these countries has been highly erratic: in dioceses with progressive bishops large numbers of CEBs flourish, while dioceses headed by conservatives have few.
It should not be surprising that conservative episcopal reaction echoes in the larger society. CEBs have come to be regarded as subversive by elites bent on maintaining the economic and political status quo. Dozens of priests and nuns involved with CEBs have been harrassed, exiled, tortured, or murdered. Hundreds of catechists and delegates and even some bishops have met the same fate.
Scholars have begun to assess the impact of over two decades of CEB activity, amid the explosion of evangelical Protestantism and Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR), whose practitioners were initially known as Pentecostal Catholics. Evidence shows a decrease in CEBs, with the poor in Latin America offering only limited support for liberation theology. Nevertheless, the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) has called for greater CEB growth, and in some regions, such as the Amazon, CEBs remain vibrant and significant. Representing a significant development in the history of the Catholic Church, CEBs endure in the twenty-first century's competitive religious marketplace.
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Tommie Sue Montgomery